Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks will be awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
When he makes his return to the Merion Station campus of the Kohelet Yeshiva High School on March 20, a year after his last appearance at the Modern Orthodox institution, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks will be doing so as the most recent honoree of the prestigious Templeton Prize.
The prize, which is awarded by the West Conshohocken-based John Templeton Foundation to honor “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension,” is one of many awards won by Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom’s United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, whose newest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, outlines a worldview in which religious differences of all faith traditions are seen as contributors to world peace instead of causes of factional bloodshed. When he takes the podium at Kohelet, Sacks said in an interview just after receiving the Templeton award this month, he will continue his message of enlightened tolerance.
It might seem an odd calling for a defender of Jewish exceptionalism, but for Sacks, adherence to one’s faith is a principle that can and should be expected of all people.
“I’ve really focused in the last 20-odd years on trying to turn Judaism outward,” he explained. “I define my Judaism as being true to your faith, regardless of others.”
Such has been a hallmark of Jewish survival throughout a history of persecution, but Sacks notes that the Jewish people are by and large persecuted no longer.
Turning Judaism outward “is something we haven’t always had the opportunity of doing,” he said. “But we have a State of Israel, some equality in chutz l’aretz,” or areas outside of the biblical Land of Israel. “I don’t think we should be turning inward.”
It’s a nuanced view, to be sure: Historically, fear of assimilation as much as a desire for safety has led to strong, if isolated, Jewish identity. For Sacks, one can be just as demonstrably Jewish — an Orthodox Jew, he wears a kipah, a beard and flowing tzitzit — and yet fully
engaged with the world.
“There is a real sense that the outward-looking Judaism that I knew many years ago was called Modern Orthodoxy,” he said. “Today, it’s probably in retreat or in eclipse in many parts of the Jewish world. I actually think we should be doing the opposite.”
Kohelet represents one part of that ideal, implementing a curriculum grounded in classical Jewish textual study as well as scientific, literary and musical pursuits — its graduates go on to higher-level yeshivas as well as Ivy League schools — but Sacks wants the Jewish world to go a step further. Judaism isn’t just a religion for its practitioners, he argues. It has a message of peace for the planet.
“I’ve always shared my Torah with the widest possible segments of society,” he said. “I have had an extraordinarily warm response from people of other faiths, from Christians, from Muslims, from Sikhs. I love the Buddhists deeply.
“Because we’ve been around a long time, people tend to look to us, saying, ‘How do you do what you do? How do you integrate in society without losing your identity?’ ” he continued. “People like listening to the Jewish voice, because we’re not trying to convert them. Given that the world is not a very nice place right now, we can do with more friends.”
One of the first steps, though, is to heal the fissures between Jews.
“As I grow older, I get more and more driven to the conclusion that my task in life is to love Jews and to get Jews to love other Jews,” he said when asked about such contemporary divides as the mainstream denominations, political questions and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “And I leave all those divisions to the Almighty, because He knows so much better than I do. We are much too small a people to allow ourselves to fail to be friends across the divide.”